Our part of Ohio recently got hammered by a windstorm that did billions of dollars in damage, knocking out power for over a week for many people. While the national news has been covering the financial crisis and the effects of Hurricane Ike that wiped out parts of Galveston, for the people in the Midwest their immediate issues were with putting things back to normal.

Some astute companies turned the disaster into opportunity, while others lost respect. These are just some observations about how to turn lemons into lemonade when a disaster strikes.

Home Depot wins points for taking out full page ads offering no-interest for six months on purchases over $299 on their credit card to help repair storm damage. This came across as a sincere attempt to share the burdens of the storm with their customers.

Cincinnati Bell on the other hand, took this as an opportunity to mock Time Warner and digital phone which requires both a connection and electricity to work, while their phone service only requires a connection. Yes, the people who had switched to digital phone service had learned this lesson, however, gloating over the failure came across as crass and opportunistic. Their offer of a free Trimline phone, a $14.95 value was an even greater insult. Phones access in a crisis can be a matter of life and death for some, but, touting a $15 “gift” when people are sitting in the dark with rotting food in powerless refrigerators is just classless. There is also the question of deliver-ability- even if you called to take them up on their phone service- how fast could they hook you up while lines are still down?

Call centers also are an opportunity to make a good impression. Comparing the automated systems of the power company, DP&L with the cable company, Time Warner was a lesson in how to do it wrong from DP&L to how to do it right from Time Warner. The DP&L system never once acknowledged their failure to deliver a critical service or apologize for the outage. No information was available via phone, or online about projected repair time. Time Warner on the other hand, acknowledged their failure, apologized for service outages, explained what was causing the outage and advised that they were working as fast as possible to restore service but the nature of the storm and their dependence on DP&L to provide power was causing delays.

Even with the power out, many people were using laptops, cell phones, wi-fi hot spots to connect online and seek information. Restaurants that were open and serving food, did well to notify their customers via their site and through e-mail blasts. Hotels that had power, had customers. The ability to quickly update a website with the latest status, inventory or answer frequently asked questions online separated the winners from the losers in the midst of the crisis.

A large part of a brands value is measured in “goodwill” and when the chips are down, it is often the best test of how well you understand your brand and it’s position in the consumers psyche. Remember, it’s ok to reach out, but do it with a kind heart, not a greedy hand. Also, always address, acknowledge, apologize for any decrease in service. Pointing fingers usually end up sticking you in your own eye.